Report 32: Witness hearings pt. 9

Gohardasht prison in Iran. One of the prisons where many persons were executed in the summer of 1988. Photo: Gohardasht Prison / Ensie & Matthias (flickr.com) / CC BY-SA 2.0

In our previous report, we provided summaries of hearings with expert witnesses 1 and 2, which were held on 17 March. In this report we will provide summaries of hearings with witnesses 25 and 26, which were held on 22 and 23 March.

Witness 25

The court day was started by Judge Zander who welcomed the witness and informed him that the hearing concerned his experiences and observations during his incarceration in Gohardasht prison 1986-1989 and Evin prison before the time of the executions. The judge then turned the floor over to the prosecution.

Prosecutor Martina Winslow started the hearing by stating that the witness had been imprisoned in Iran during the 1360’s. The prosecutor then asked the witness where and when he was imprisoned. He responded that he had been imprisoned in the month of Esfand 1360 (1982) for sympathizing with a communist organization.

He was moved between prisons until he was moved to Gohardasht prison in the autumn of 1365 (1986), where he stayed until the end of 1367 (1989). He was then moved to Evin prison and released in connection with the new year. After a short period, he was arrested again for 20 days before being released again in Farvardin 1368 (1989).  

The prosecutor asked questions about the witness’ observations during the months of Mordad and Shahrivar 1367 (1988), when the mass-executions took place. In the beginning of Mordad, the guards had come to the witness’ section and taken the television and disconnected an audio speaker. The prisoners were then not allowed to go out in the prison yard, not allowed to receive visitors and not allowed to go to the sickbay. The witness and his fellow prisoners were informed through morse code from prisoners in other sections that 200 prisoners had been executed. Later, he saw 200 slippers piled next to a gate in the prison yard.

The witness described how he, from his prison section, could see bodies lie on the ground outside next to a truck and covered by a sheet, and how some people had been spraying disinfectants over the bodies. After a two days’ time the bodies had been removed. At a different occasion he had seen bodies lie on the truck.

Around 7 Shahrivar, Abbasi and some guards had come to the section and called out 20 names and the witness was among those called. The prisoners were told to put on their blindfolds and were escorted to the floor beneath their section, where they were made to sit and wait. After questioning, the prisoners were sorted into groups. After being sorted, the witness and the prisoners in his group, were escorted by Naserian to where the “death-committee” presided. Once the witness entered the room, he took a seat on a chair that faced about 16 persons. Some of the individuals were mullahs and others were wearing civilian clothing. Two of the persons on the “death committee” were Nayyeri and Eshraghi. They asked the witness different questions, such as about the length of his prison sentence and other similar questions. However, the critical questions were, according to the witness, whether he was a Muslim and whether he did his prayers. He responded to these questions negatively, which prompted Nayyeri to call him an apostate and to say that he was wasting the committee’s time and that he should be executed.

Eshraghi had then asked the witness if he was close to his family’s religion or stood by his organization. Since he had realized that answering otherwise would lead to his execution, the witness responded that he was close to his family’s religion. He had also stated that he and his family were Sufis. When Abbasi had heard this, he had laughed, according to the witness. Nayyeri then ordered that the witness be escorted out.

The witness said that he was escorted to an upper floor and made to wait with some other prisoners. The witness described how Naserian, Lashkari and Abbasi came to where the prisoners were and asked them if they would do their prayers, to which the prisoners had responded that they would not. The prisoners were then moved to another place, where they were whipped with cables. The whipping was severe and afterwards the prisoners had difficulties standing, even when leaning against the wall. The individual that was whipping the witness had told him that Nayyeri had stated that the witness would not be allowed to die easy, and that the witness would have to kiss Nayyeri’s feet ten times a day before he would execute him.

The witness described how one prisoner who believed that he would come to be tortured for a long period of time had taken a piece of glass from jar and cut himself in the stomach. He had not been taken to the sickbay. Before the blood had coagulated, Naserian had come and told the prisoners that they could also kill themselves.

The witness also described how they were physically assaulted by guards on multiple occasions. On one occasion, the witness had been asked if he would participate in a public interview, to which he had responded that he would not. He was subsequently subjected to yet another whipping session.

At one point, when the witness had been brought to a section together with approximately 200 other prisoners, Naserian had told the prisoners that it was just them left and that the rest of the prisoners had been executed.

The prosecutor then asked the witness about an alleged discrepancy between his statement in court and his statements to the Swedish police.  According to the prosecutor, the witness had told the police that Naserian also had been present when Abbasi called out the 20 names. The witness responded that when he had re-read the transcript from his police hearing, he could almost not understand anything. Something was wrong with the translation. He further underlined that what he had stated in court was the correct statement, and that Naserian had not been present at the discussed event.

The witness described other occasions when he had encountered the defendant. On one occasion, about 8 days after meeting the “death committee”, the defendant had been present as the witness was being whipped. Abbasi had also come to the witness’ section and asked the prisoners if they would do their prayers. He estimated that he had seen Abbasi about 3-4 times during his incarceration in Gohardasht prison.

The prosecutor further referred to the testimony that the witness had given before the Iran Tribunal previously and underlined that it corresponded with his testimony before the court.

When the prosecution had finalized its hearing with the witness, the floor was handed to the plaintiff counsels for further questioning. Counsel Kenneth Lewis commenced by asking about the time span between the television being removed from his section and the witness seeing the slippers in the prison yard. He responded that it was perhaps 15 days between the two events. The other plaintiff counsels asked the witness about different names, alleged former prisoners, and if the witness had known these individuals. The witness had known some of the individuals, others he had not known and some that he had known had been executed.

Defense counsel Daniel Marcus proceeded with the questioning of the witness on account of the defense and asked the witness to describe the room in which the “death committee” had been situated. The witness described the size of the room and where people had been seated. The witness was asked if a certain individual had been part of the “death committee”. The witness had stated earlier during the court hearing that the only two individuals on the “death committee” whom he had recognized were Nayyeri and Eshraghi. The defense showed a sketch over the prison that the witness had drawn during a hearing with the Swedish police. On this sketch, the witness had written the name of this certain individual next to where he had marked the location of the “death committee”. The witness stated that he had been aware that this individual had played an active part during the discussed events, however, he had not been present the day when the witness had faced the committee.

The defense further asked about the location of the “death committee” and claimed that there were some uncertainties surrounding where it had been situated. The witness had, according to the defense, described the location differently during his police hearing. The witness responded that he had described the position of the “death committee” to the best of his recollection and that he did not remember if he had described it differently.

The defense asked the witness about the truck that had allegedly been loaded with bodies. The witness explained that the truck did not have a roof, and that he therefore could see how the bodies had been stacked and were covered by a thin sheet which it was possible to distinguish the bodies through. He was then asked about the window from which he had made these observations and whether it was covered by metal bars. The witness responded that the window were indeed covered by metal bars but that it was possible to see through them, and that they had been bended apart, which made it possible to see even better.

The judge then thanked the witness for giving his testimony and then ended the court day.

Witness 26

The hearing was initiated by Judge Zander welcoming the witness to the court. The witness is the founder of the organization Justice for Iran and has participated in the publishing of two reports with Amnesty International, which have been presented as evidence before the court by the prosecution. Judge Zander announced that the hearing with the witness concerned her knowledge about the mass-executions in Iran in 1988 and her work with the two reports. The judge then turned the floor over to the prosecutor.

Prosecutor Karolina Wieslander initiated the hearing by asking the witness to describe her academic background. The witness responded that she had studied law, done a master’s in international law, was currently doing her doctoral studies and had experience from working with human rights issues.

She was then asked about the work leading up to one of the reports. She stated that they had interviewed relatives of people that had been executed during the mass-executions in 1367 (1988). The bodies of executed persons had in most cases not been handed over to their relatives. The relatives had found out that prisoners from both Evin and Gohardasht prison had been buried, piled on top of each other, in deserted areas outside Tehran. The relatives had managed to document this.

The witness claimed that the security services in Iran had planned to destroy these areas, in an effort to destroy the most important evidence of the state’s crimes. This could be seen through satellite imagery, explained the witness. The risk that the evidence was going to be destroyed led the witness and her coworkers to notify different organization and to start to document the evidence. They suspected that there were 70 mass graves, out of which they were certain of the existence of 30.  

The witness described how the interviews for one of the reports had been conducted. Former prisoners and their relatives had been interviewed. They had also collected memoirs and books written by survivors. They had gradually started to compile a list over those who had survived, most of which were sympathizers of leftist organizations. Most interviews were conducted in person. The persons who were interviewed were either former political prisoners who had been incarcerated in Evin and Gohardasht prison or the relatives of persons who had been in those prisons.

The witness was asked if she remembered if anyone of those who had been interviewed had ever mentioned the defendant’s name, to which she responded that two persons had. These interviews had been conducted in 2017, which was before the defendant had been arrested in Sweden. One of the interviewed individuals had described an event when this person had been confronted by the defendant in Gohardasht prison after the mass-executions in 1367 (1988). The interviewed person had at the time been in solitary confinement. The defendant together with Lashkari and some other guards had then come to his cell. They had asked him to do something that he had refused to, which resulted in the guards assaulting him. During this event, the defendant and Lashkari allegedly watched the assault take place, according to the witness. The other person who had also mentioned Abbasi during the interview had said that the defendant at an occasion had read out names of prisoners.

The prosecutor asked the witness what, in her opinion, had taken place in Iran in 1367 (1988). The witness responded that persons who had already been sentenced had systematically, and in massive scale, been executed in multiple prisons in Iran.

The prosecutor asked the witness if, to her knowledge, torture occurred during the discussed events. The witness responded that, from what former prisoners had stated, torture did occur and was common. It happened every other day, was systemic and conducted in large scale. Torture did also occur in Gohardasht prison and was used as a form of punishment. From interviews it had become evident that Abbasi had the authority to order the torture of prisoners and that he gave such orders and took part in such activities.

The witness was then asked about Khomeini’s alleged fatwa and where it had been published. To the witness’ knowledge, the first time that it had been published was in Montazeri’s memoirs. There was no doubt that it was Khomeini who had issued the fatwa, according to the witness. The fatwa was specifically targeted against MEK. The witness was later asked if sympathizers of leftist groups also were executed. No second fatwa had been found, the witness explained, but the witness had concluded that such a second fatwa had existed. Sympathizers of leftist groups were targeted because they opposed the regime and if released, they would constitute a powerful force against the state. The treatment they faced was similar to that of MEK followers, however they faced slightly different questions when questioned. Their questions were focused on whether they were still Muslims. The witness described that, according to Iranian laws, it was a crime for a person born Muslim to abandon his or her religion. With this in mind, there was perhaps not a need for a second fatwa, since it was already a crime and the punishment was death, the witness reasoned.

When the prosecution finished its hearing with the witness, the judge handed the floor over to the plaintiff counsels. Counsel Kenneth Lewis commenced by asking how it had been decided who to interview for the reports that the witness had worked on. The witness responded that a list of potential people to interview had been compiled from watching MEK broadcasts. The counsel further asked about how the interviews had been conducted. The witness explained that they had been conducted according to the Istanbul protocol, and in solitude. The interviews were also recorded, both video and audio. Counsel Ghita Hadding asked if it was correct to state that there was no legal ground for the executions, which the witness responded that there was not.

The floor was then handed to the defense. Defense counsel Thomas Söderqvist stated that in the mentioned reports, phrases such as “suspected mass graves” and “bodies believed to have been buried” were repeatedly used. The counsel asked if any independent investigations had been conducted concerning the suspected mass graves. The witness responded that there were multiple locations where family’s claims that there are mass graves. However, the state does not permit independent organization to investigate these sites and it was therefore difficult to confirm.

The defense asked about the interviews that had been conducted. Specifically, whether any of those interviewed had mentioned Abbasi. The witness responded, as earlier, that two persons had mentioned the defendant in their interviews, before the defendant was arrested. The defense counsel then mentioned an alleged discrepancy between the witness’ statements in court and her statements to the Swedish police. It had been noted in the protocol from the police hearing that the witness had claimed that all persons who had been interviewed for the reports and who had mentioned Abbasi, had not been imprisoned in Gohardasht prison, or they had been but not during the relevant time frame. The witness responded that the defendant had moved between prisons, so it was possible that prisoners had seen him at different locations.

When the defense had finished their hearing with the witness, the judge thanked the witness for giving her testimony and the court day was ended.

Next report

In our next report, we will provide summaries of the hearings with Expert Witness 3,4 and 5, which were held on 23 and 24 March.

A translated version of this report in Farsi can be found here.